The CEO Search: What Comes First – The Chicken or the Egg?
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The CEO Search: What Comes First- The Chicken or the Egg?

Board chairs who are about to launch an executive search for their organization’s next CEO always seem to have the same search question: Should we develop our strategic plan first and then recruit our next CEO, or should we just hire the CEO and leave it up to them to develop the plan?

My answer? Develop your strategic plan first or, at a minimum, identify the key strategic goals your organization’s board will need to achieve to sustain your mission and continue to make a positive difference in the lives of those you serve.

There is a significant downside risk to hiring a new CEO before you engage in at least some self-examination and strategic goal development. You could easily find that you have a newly-hired chief executive who doesn’t have the ability see your vision through. Strategic planning prior to hiring gives you opportunity to match the skill sets of your next chief executive to your board’s vision of the organization’s future.

For example, what if, during the strategic planning process, you determine that your programs are operating well and need few changes in the next five years. However, you have determined that your funding mix is about to change, and that the organization will require heavy focus on raising philanthropic dollars to continue its work? If you had already hired a new CEO with great program development experience but no clue about fundraising, you will end up with a mismatch between your CEO’s strengths and your organization’s needs. You have just set yourselves up for a struggle to achieve your organizational goals. Worse, your new CEO may become disheartened when he begins to understand that his skills are inadequate to his new role.

It will be helpful to ask yourselves a few questions about your organization before the CEO search begins:

  • Does your current vision statement still represent a realistic, credible, attractive future for your organization?
  • Does it continue to inspire all stakeholders or is it a bit stale?
  • What were last year’s top achievements?
  • How well do you communicate your achievements and successes with all stakeholders, internal and external?
  • What do you see as the major internal obstacles to achieving your vision?
  • What are your key strategic goals this year?
  • How would you measure your organization’s success?
  • How well is your organization known in the community?
  • What makes you distinctive?
  • How would you describe the positive social impact you are having?
  • How well do you retain current donors?
  • How engaged and motivated is your board?

You can decide whether you need to develop a comprehensive strategic plan, or if it will be sufficient to just identify the key strategic goals you need your next CEO and leader to achieve. But your organization should spend the time and energy for at least some self-examination and consensus-building regarding your future direction. At minimum, a new vision statement should be developed and approved.

Dennis C. Miller is the Managing Director of The Nonprofit Search Group www.thenonprofitsearch.com and author A Guide to Recruiting Your Next CEO: The Executive Search Handbook for Nonprofit Boards, scheduled for release on October 10, 2017 by Emerald Lake Books.

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